Audio-book Review
            By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog: awalkingdelight)
 Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Leaves of Grass (1855 Edition)

By: Walt Whitman

Narrated by: Edoardo Ballerini

Walt Whitman (Poet, 1819-1892)

“Leaves of Grass” is perfectly rendered by Edoardo Ballerini. Walt Whitman’s masterpiece shines in Ballerini’s narration. Whitman lived in one of America’s most tumultuous times. He lived through the build-up of the civil war, worker displacement from American industrialization, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Despite the horrors of his time, Whitman celebrated life.

Today is a good time to listen to Whitman’s masterwork. Living in the time of Covid19, Russia’s attack on Ukraine, January 6 violence in the nation’s capital, probable arrest of a former President, natural disasters, climate change, threat of Armageddon, American poverty, immigration, and homelessness—all can overwhelm one’s senses. Whitman understood the difficulties of his time but rises above them by celebrating what being American means.

Being American means having a written Constitution.
Being American means balance of power based on independent judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government.

Being American means being free within the context of rule-of-law. Being American means freedom to vote for representative government. Being American means freedom of speech and the press within the bounds of slander toward others.

Just as was true in the time of Walt Whitman, there is no guarantee of peace and tranquility, but his blank verse reflects on the many positive values of living life as an American. Whitman implies Americans should celebrate what they have, not what they want.


Audio-book Review
 By Chet Yarbrough

(Blog: awalkingdelight)
 Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies

By: Ross King

Narrated by: Joel Richards

Ross King (Canadian Author of books on Italian, French and Canadian Art and History.)

Ross King refreshes one’s interest in the history of WWI while revealing much of the mystery and appeal of Claude Monet and his art. Monet’s diminutive size contrasts with his giant impact on impressionism. As a founding father of impressionism, Monet’s passion is to show the effect of light on life and nature.

Monet lived in Giverny, France in a modest house with a well-maintained lily pond and garden that served as a subject of his art.

Having read biographies of Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio, Monet is certainly not the first to have had a passion for the effect of light on a subject. Monet produces light that moves an admirer from objective observation to subjective pleasure.

In 1874, Monet exhibited “Impression Sunrise” that received hostile reviews. That painting exemplified the beginning of Impressionism. King shows Monet insists on his vision and the era of modern art is born.


King recounts Monet’s relationship with Clemenceau, known in France as the tiger before WWI, and the Father of Victory at its end. King explains Clemenceau is a duelist in his early years who becomes a physician, newspaper writer/publisher, and then politician.

Clemenceau at Age 24 in 1865.

Clemenceau is recognized as a great orator and leader of men by no less than Winston Churchill.

Clemenceau becomes prime minister of France during WWI.

Clemenceau cheers French resistance to the German assault of France. At defeat of Germany, Clemenceau presses for German reparations, including return of the Alsace-Lorraine region of France. He insists on full compensation for German destruction from WWI.

King offers a Eurocentric view of WWI. France is not a great fan of America’s reluctance to join the war when France is pummeled by Germany. Though Clemenceau appreciates the ideal of Wilson’s 14-point plan, he objects to the League of Nations and insists on German reparations that set the table for WWII.

Monet is also not a great admirer of America. He considers American buyers of his art as profligate and ignorant of fine art and their value. King notes both Clemenceau and Monet admire Japanese artists and collect many of their works. Many of Monet’s paintings are sold to Japanese buyers.

Clemenceau and Monet are close friends until death. Monet is the first to go but Clemenceau is ill and soon to die. Both were of a similar age. Both were hard working Frenchmen in their respective professions. Monet’s art is sold or bartered during his life to private and public museums. Many of Monet’s works are donated to the French government at his death. A government financed museum is created for an exclusive exhibit of Monet’s paintings.

Mussee Marmottan in Paris

King notes Monet loses much of his eyesight in later years, but he perseveres with the help of eye surgery that returns some vision to one eye. Clemenceau plays a large part in convincing Monet to donate his art to France. As both are approaching death, Monet’s penchant for procrastination nearly fractures their close relationship. Part of the fracturing is related to the government’s problems with creating a museum that would meet Monet’s requirements. Some of his canvases were huge and Monet wished to have them displayed in an oval shaped museum. Additionally, King notes Monet is often dissatisfied with a painting and would destroy it and start over. Monet is also noted to dawdle when nearing a paintings completion by leaving a detail that is planned but never executed. King explains Monet’s work ethic is phenomenal. He wakes at dawn and works through the night until his energy is spent.

Clemenceau is a significant character in King’s biography of Monet. In some respects, the two men are alike. They are both relentlessly energetic in their respective professions. Though Clemenceau is a doctor, his passion is in publishing and politics. He travels the world. Monet restricts his travel to France, mostly between Paris and Giverny but with a passion for work equal to Clemenceau’s. Monet’s passion is for impressionist renderings of the natural world.

As Monet’s vision deteriorates, later work reimagines impressionism based on failing vision–but more poignantly, it seems Monet’s later paintings reflect on the trials of a long life.

Water Lillies 1919 at The Met Fifth Avenue in New York.

King suggests looking at one of Monet’s water lilies paintings long enough gives one’s imagination free reign to see something more than a pond. Some see figures of women, others–spirits of the dead. A lily pond seems as much a tribute to life as to decay.

Rose Trellises in Giverny 1922

In King’s epilogue, Monet is glorified in a review and contrast of early and late impressionist paintings. King reminds listeners of Monet’s initial vilification by the art world, his resurrection, demise, and reification in modern times. What Monet could see with younger eyes, before cataracts obscured his vision, King recognizes as a new era of art. King offers tribute to two great men, Clemenceau’s political renown which revels in his time and Monet’s art celebrated for all time.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

Website: chetyarbrough.blog

A History of Wine in Ten Glasses

By: Paul Wagner

                                                    Narrated by : Paul Wagner

Paul Wagner (Author, Podcaster, Lecturer)

“A History of Wine in Ten Glasses” is a journey around the world of wine. 

Paul Wagner is a wine instructor at (where else?) Napa Valley College. 

There are several revelations about wine for us amateur wine drinkers.  Thomas Jefferson tried and failed to create a good wine in his home state of Virginia.  

Jefferson’s failure is related to a grapevine disease in Virginia’ soils that attacked the roots of plants he brought with him from his diplomatic mission in France.  The root disease is discovered after Jefferson’s death.  Once the disease is diagnosed and treated, Wagner notes Virginia began producing some fine wines.

Wagner dates the production of wine back to 6000 BC in what is now known as Georgia.  Some would dispute that and suggest China had a rice and grape mixed fermented wine in 7000 BC.  Others suggest Iran may have been the origin of the first wines on the the Persian Gulf.  In any case, wine has been with us for centuries.

Wagner argues the Roman Empire is the primary disseminator of the art of wine making.

Rome’s conquest of countries surrounding the Mediterranean spread wine making throughout the known world, sometime between 27 BC and 476 AD.  Even today, the greatest wine volume comes from Italy with France and Spain, the second and third biggest producers

More than ten glasses are identified by Wagner, but the primary libations are from Italy, France, Spain, U.S., Australia, Greece, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, and Germany.  However, Wagner takes side trips to smaller countries like Portugal and New Zealand. 

Having traveled to some of these countries, his assessment of their wines seems spot on. Interestingly, his assessment of Chile’s inexpensive Malbec is a favorite of mine. In Italy, the selection of wine at dinner seems the simplest of all decisions.  Rarely is red wine in Italy served that is too bitter or too sweet.  Retsina in Greece is a horrible drink but adding water makes all the difference.  Retsina remains an acquired taste but with water it becomes palatable. Traveling to Argentina and New Zealand confirms Wagner’s assessment of the quality of their wines.

The idea of adding water to wine is a surprise but Wagner notes added water was often the habit of early wine drinkers. (Of course, watered wine is common in religious ceremony.)

Wagner also notes that a pinch of salt can smooth the acidic taste of an inexpensive wine.  Potassium chloride, not salt, is what is recommended by some wine connoisseurs.  

German wine Labeling system.

A surprising note by Wagner is that German and New Zealand wines are tightly controlled by a labeling system to assure the quality of their wine. 

Wagner reports on Germany’s and New Zealand’s precise label certification. One suspects precise wine labeling is a characteristic of the precisionist culture of Germany.  However, New Zealand’s labeling is a result of some Marlborough wines that were contaminated by runoff from lumber harvesting activities in 2005.   Both countries labeling assures the quality of their wines.  Undoubtedly, there is a concomitant cost for the right label.

Wagner lives in Napa Valley and, not surprisingly, suggests many of the best wines in the world come from Napa Valley’ vineyards.  Blind wine testing in Paris confirms his opinion.  What he says is true about many Napa Valley wines, but prices of those great tasting wines are often higher than many can afford.

“A History of Wine in Ten Glasses” is a nice introduction to the vagaries and mysteries of wine selection. For we amateurs wine selection remains hit and miss because it is only our personal taste and affordability that matters.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Chopin’s Piano

By: Paul Kildea

                                               Narrated by : Mathew Waterson

Paul Kildea (Author, Austrailian conductor, Artistic Director of Musica Vivia Australia.)

Paul Kildea is a multifaceted talent who has written an interesting biography of Frederic Chopin and a lesser-known Polish musician, Wanda Landowska, who revivified Chopin’s  music. 

Frederic Francois Chopin (1810-1849, Composer and virtuoso pianist.)

Whether one knows anything of music or history, Kildea expertly entertains listener/readers with “Chopin’s Piano”. 

Chopin is noted as a Romanticist composer considered among the most creative of all time.    For that reason, the sound of Chopin’s work has changed with the times.

There are several ironies in Kildea’s history of Chopin.  Chopin is shown to have been pleased by being considered French though he was Polish.  Chopin is characterized as anti-Semitic though at times financially supported by Jews and resurrected by a world-renowned harpsichordist, Wanda Landowska, a proud and nationalist Pole who escaped Nazi persecution and extermination. Landowska, a woman of the Jewish faith, flees Paris when Germany invades France. 

Wanda Landowska in front of the Bauza piano owned by Chopin.

One of her treasured pianos is the Bauza piano used by Chopin to create his greatest masterpieces, the Preludes.

George Sand (1804-1876, French novelist and 10 year companion of Chopin)

Kildea reflects on Chopin’s diminutive physique and self-effacing nature. Chopin never marries but has a ten-year relationship with George Sand, a divorced woman with a broadly libertine reputation. 

One wonders what Sand’s influence is on Chopin’s creativity.  What Kildea explains is that Sand admires Chopin’s dedication to music and supports Chopin through his frail health during the most productive period of his life.  However, at the end of their ten year relationship, Sand leaves because the burden of their relationship is either too much or she just chooses to return to a life of independence.

The thread of Kildea’s history is the Bauza piano’s location in the 21st century. It’s whereabouts remains unknown.

This piano was used by Chopin between 1838-39 when living with  George Sand in Majorca.  A striking point in Kildea’s story is that the Bauza piano is a crudely formed instrument carved from local softwood.  Its innards are made of felt, pig iron, and copper but its cultural importance is extraordinary and its provenance unquestioned.  It disappeared when confiscated by Nazi Germany when they ransacked Landowska’s home in Paris.

Wanda Landowska in 1953.

The last half of Kildea’s story is about the trials and achievements of Wanda Landowska.  In reflecting on Landowska’s rise to fame, the Bauza piano is a symbol of Chopin’s creative genius. 

This flawed instrument is used to create compositions that are endlessly translated by pianoforte (soft and loud sound) from the use of harpsicords to modern Steinways.  Landowska, and many pianists of the 19th through the 21st century are listed by Kildea, showing the brilliance and variety of Chopin’s compositions.  Only a musical conductor turned author like Kildea could explain this to the public.  “Chopin’s Piano” is a small opening to a big world.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Languages of Truth (Essays 2003-2020)

By Salman Rushdie

Narrated by Raj Ghatak, Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie (Author, essayist)

Salman Rushdie is an irreverent atheist who makes a strong case for science, cultural acceptance, and freedom of choice. 

This memoir is somewhat diminished by Raj Ghatak’s narration of the last essays of the book.   Ghatak’s presentation recounts the meaning of Rushdie’s essays, but they seem less personal without Rushdie’s narration. “Languages of Truth” is a compilation of highly personal opinions.    First chapters of “Languages of Truth” are more perfectly presented by Rushdie’s unique and mellifluous voice.

Rushdie expresses strong negative opinions of America’s two most recent Republican Presidents.  He ends his last essay with the hope for Donald Trump’s defeat in the coming 2021 re-election.

Rushdie argues Modi is bad for India. Contrary to the opinion of many citizens of India, Rushdie abjures Modi’s leadership. Rushdie believes Modi promotes unfair treatment of minorities, demands public fealty to Hindu nationalism, and limits freedom of choice. Rushdie is no less repelled by religious fundamentalism in the United States and its divisive influence on equal rights, freedom of speech, and freedom of choice. 

In continuation of his political opinions, Rushdie suggests Britain’s Prime Minister fails the UK as badly as Trump fails America in the fight against Covid19. 

There is a good deal of name dropping in Rushdie’s essays.  He writes of his love for Christopher Hitchens, Harold Pinter, and Carrie Fisher.  Rushdie admires Hitchens’ irreverent sense of humor and consistent atheism.  Both Hitchens and Pinter support Rushdie in the writing and publication of “The Satanic Verses”.

Rushdie recounts his first meeting with Carrie Fisher with whom he becomes a close friend.  He notes how friends are particularly protective of Fisher because of her personal trials.  Rushdie notes his friendship with Fisher is intimate, caring, and asexual.

Parenthetically, Rushdie notes–contrary to the notion of men not being able to be friends with women, his friendship with Fisher denies the sexual-tension myth reinforced by movies.

Rushdie notes he is also an admirer and friends of well-known contemporary writers like Phillip Roth.  There are other lesser-known artists of other media who become Rushdie’s friends.  He speaks of Bhupen Khakhar, Grancesco Clemente, Taryn Simon, and Kara Walker.  In each of these friend recollections, Rushdie emphasizes what he perceives are “Languages of Truth” expressed in movies, painting, photographs, and other artistic media.

To this reviewer, the more interesting reveal in Rushdie’s essays are his opinions about books and plays that a listener has read.  He offers reviews of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five”, Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” and Shakespeare’s oeuvre.  He reaches back to ancient history with Heraclitus and his sparsely remaining written notes.  Rushdie identifies the difference between American and India folk tales where one has a moral while the other simply recounts events without judgement.

Ayatollah Khomieni (1902-1989, the first Supreme Leader of Iran.)

Rushdie’s intellect and wit led to the infamous Islamic fatwa from Khomeini that authorized his killing for blaspheming Allah.

Rushdie’s appeal is to liberals of the world.  Many conservatives will cringe at Rushdie’s rejection of religion and acceptance of social and sexual difference.  However, Rushdie shows himself to be an unrepentant intellectual with a warm heart and wicked wit.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Leonardo da Vinci

By: Walter Isaacson

Narrated by Alfred Molina

Walter Isaacson (Author, Biographer, Former Chair of Broadcasting Board of Governors)

This is the storied life of a self-educated savant.  Walter Isaacson scrupulously details a genius’s life and notes how curiosity and focus inform his intellect. Leonardo da Vinci is an illegitimate child raised by an extended family that includes his educated wayward father and unlettered mother.  Born in Florence, da Vinci grows to manhood and follows a path festooned with powerful Italian and French rulers.

Self portraits of Leonardo belie Isaacson’s characterization of him as handsome. However, Isaacson’s supposition is drawn from other people’s perception of him rather than Leonardo’s perception of himself.

Leonardo da Vinci self portrait as an old man

Parenthetically, Isaacson notes that Leonardo is gay and finds the idea of heterosexual acts as volitionally repugnant.

Isaacson suggests every person can reach higher levels of understanding by being acutely observant and curious.  He suggests these two characteristics have a yin and yang, a good and bad consequence. 

The good comes from a restless desire to understand what one sees.  The bad comes from distraction that causes a brilliant mind to wander and fail to complete an idea or finish a project.

Isaacson infers Leonardo’s innate intelligence magnifies his ability to pattern what he observes into insights that are hundreds of years ahead of future discoveries.  From observations of nature, the human body, and expressed human emotion da Vinci refines the art of painting. 

However, Isaacson notes Leonardo is so much more than an artist.  Leonardo is a polymath.  Leonardo acquires understanding of cosmic phenomena, the dynamics of water and air movement, the physical expression of human emotion, and the general science of earth’s structure, and substance. 

At the same time, Isaacson notes that Leonardo often fails to publish, or diseminate his findings.  Leonardo becomes distracted by new observations that lead to incomplete works of art, science, and engineering.  Isaacson explains that some of the incompleteness is a consequence of finding a new discovery that causes Leonardo to rethink how a painting or project is to be completed.

Isaacson notes many paintings were carried with him to his death.  Some were never finished.  Leonardo continually refines his paintings with new understanding of light and shadow, muscle and bone. 

In some cases, painting’ modifications were made years after their initiation because of a muscle, tendon, or ligament discovery from Leonardo’s many human dissections.

Leonardo revised “Saint Jerome in the Wilderness” years after he started it because of research on neck muscles from his numerous dissections of the human body.

Leonardo lived in a time of powerful Italian and French leaders.  He serves men of power like Cesare Borgia, Francis I, and Pope Leo X (the son of Lorenzo de’ Medici). 

Leonardo serves Cesare Borgia for 8 years as an engineer and artist. He creates the model for a massive horse (a larger mold than had ever been created would be required). It is to be a tribute to Cesare Borgia but it is never cast because of the circumstance of war.

By historical account, Cesare Borgia is ambitious and arrogant.  Cesare is alleged to have murdered his brother to assume control of a Papal State.  He is alleged to have been responsible for several political assassinations.  Leonardo seems to have had no compunction for serving Borgia and appears to have been a confident of the brutal dictator.

Two interesting reveals by Isaacson is Leonardo’s willingness to serve whoever would sponsor his work regardless of their good or bad actions, and his role as a scene creator for theatrical productions.  Isaacson’s explanation of Leonardo’s scene creations for plays is revelatory because of the many mechanical inventions drawn by this master of innovation. 

One can imagine how thrilled an audience would be at a theatre production that showed Leonardo’s skill as an animator of mechanical wonders.  It seems a perfect venue for Leonardo’s inventive mind.

Leonardo becomes friends with luminaries like Niccolo Machiavelli and Luca Pacioli (an Italian mathematician).

Niccolo Machiavelli, 1469-1527, died at age 58. Cesare Borgia is said to have been the model for “The Prince”.

Most, but not all, of Leonardo’s patrons and customers were men or women of great power and wealth. Some, like Borgia had little or no moral conscience.  Some with great wealth who requested commissions were ignored by Leonardo.

A younger contemporary of Leonardo is Michelangelo Buonarroti. 

Michelangelo is a competitor for Art commissions who disdains Leonardo.

 Detail of Michelanglo’s “Doubting Thomas”.

Isaacson notes that Leonardo is no less disdainful of Michelangelo but much less confrontational when asked for opinions about his competitor’s work.

Isaacson wrote a biography of Stephen Jobs and often refers to Jobs’ driven personality. 

His biography of Leonardo shows a commonality between these two geniuses.  They both looked for perfection in their work.

From a painting of the Last Supper, to the image of Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, to the Mona Lisa, Isaacson shows Leonardo to be among the most creative artist of all time.  Leonardo’s understanding of light and shadow, human vision, physiology, and facial expression contribute to art what E=MC squared contributed to physics. 

(Sadly, Isaacson notes much of “The Last Supper” shows little of Leonardo’s original work because of cleanings and restorations over the centuries.)

Isaacson shows Leonardo is much more than an artist.  From the idea of creating power from water movement to the planning of cities for Kings, Leonardo da Vinci is shown to be an insightful civil engineer. In sum, Isaacson implies Leonardo’s insights rival all the savants of history.  Leonardo da Vinci is an artist and scientist ahead of his time.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts

By: Christopher de Hamel

Narrated by Christopher de Hamel

Christopher de Hamel is a British academic librarian.  He is an expert on mediaeval manuscripts.  De Hamel takes listeners on an international journey to view ancient illuminated manuscripts.  

De Hamel’s peregrinations are fascinating, in part because of his excellent recitation.  But also because of interesting stories about manuscript’ provenance, purpose, and location.  (A listener’s regret–there are no illuminated manuscript’ plates in the audio book appendix. This review is meant to partially address that regret.)   

Illuminated manuscripts are held for safekeeping in controlled access libraries and museums around the world. These manuscripts are called “illuminated” because they were hand-made with images and script drawn in gold and silver. They were made by Western European scribes between 500 and 1600 CE (common era). 

They vary in size from as large as three feet tall (Codex Gigas with 310 leaves of vellum made from 160 donkeys) to one so small it could fit into the palm of one’s hand; e.g. the “Prayer Book of Claude de France” produced in the 16th century.

De Hamel reviews 12 manuscripts.  The most famous is the “Book of Kels” found in Ireland.  The most interesting might be the “Spinola Book of Hours” because the author plays a role in its discovery and collation.  The “Spinola Book of Hours” is a 16th century manuscript with 88 miniature paintings.  It is presently located in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

The purpose of ancient manuscripts is to educate and enlighten medieval populations. Just as today, the greatest benefit is to the rich. The rich could afford the manuscripts but the poor were offered limited exposure through the few religious schools that served the poor. Many ancient manuscripts were used to teach the young how to read while educating them in the history of the world and the religion adhered to by royalty.

(The invention of the Guttenberg press in 1440 CE was the beginning of the end of the illuminated manuscript but the art of the handmade manuscript survives into the early 17th century.)

De Hamel tells 13 stories about 12 illuminated and one technically not-illuminated manuscript (the “Codex Amiatinus”). All entertain and inform interested listeners.

The following list shows de Hamel’s chosen manuscripts. An interesting manuscript that reflects on modern times is Tres Riches Heurees du Duc de Berry. It reflects on the Black Plague’s European devastation.

  1. BOOK OF DURROW (7th century book of hours, biblical tales and Virgil/Homeric tales, most well known. Located in Dublin @ Trinity College – is the oldest completed illuminated transcript)
  2. CODEX AMIATINUS (created by missionaries, 8th century, North Umbria creation. Bible.) technically not illuminated-no silver or gold.
  3. LINDISFARNE GOSPELS (Somehow saved) 8th century New Testament, stolen by the Vikings. Contains the gospes of Mark, John, Luke, and Matthew.)
  4. THE BOOK OF KELLS (most famous, 9th century, greatest of any era)
  5. ST. ALBANS PSALTER (12th century, detailed art work)
  6. MORGAN CRUSADER BIBLE (13th century) artistic masterpiece about the Old Testament crusades
  7. WESTMINISTER ABBEY BESTIARY (164 illustrations, 13th century, real and imaginary animals)
  8. THE BOOK OF HOURS OF JEANNE d’Evreux (14th century) life of Jesus.
  9. THE BLACK HOURS (15th century) created in Greece, purchased by Piermont Morgan and housed in the Morgan Museum in New York.
  10. TRES RICHES HEURES du Duc de Berry (15th century, master work, unfinished because of the plague.)
  11. Grimani Breviary (16th century, religious and secular stories, made in Flanders. Over 1600 pages – stories from the bible)
  12. PRAYER BOOK OF CLAUDE DE FRANCE (16th century) fit in the palm of one’s hand. Magnifying glass needed.

Shakespeare’s Origin

Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Will in the World
By Stephen Greenblatt

Narrated by Peter Jay Fernandez

Stephen Greenblatt (Author, Shakespeare historian)

“Will in the World” is a clever investigation of William Shakespeare’s life and a speculation about the origin of Shakespeare’s fictional characters. 

It is clever because Shakespeare’s life is revealed in the context of 16th and 17th century English history; not just the sparsely documented facts of his life.  Though highly speculative, theatrical character development is dredged from “facts” about Shakespeare’s “friends” and family.      

Greenblatt recounts Shakespeare’s childhood by picturing school in the 16th century for a boy from a respected family in England.

Shakespeare’s father is a magistrate in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England when Will begins school.  Will develops a precocious and consuming interest in words, acting, and writing. 

However, Shakespeare’s father falls from grace.  He loses his status and income through either malfeasance in office, alcoholism, or financial mismanagement.  Will is unable to attend college because of its cost. His father’s need for help in the family business, and/or his father’s personal troubles are likely influences in Shakespeare’s writing.

Will Shakespeare lives in a time of religious upheaval in England when the Anglican Church is competing with the Roman Catholic Church.  Shakespeare’s father may have been caught in the conflict as a secretly sympathizing Roman Catholic.  Additionally, Will’s father may have been illegally participating in the wool trade. 

Many speculations but few facts drive William Shakespeare to London where he joins a theater group after marrying a woman several years older than himself in Stratford.  Shakespeare returns periodically to Stratford-upon-Avon, has 3 children by his Stratford wife, and retires there at age 50.

Greenblatt thinks Shakespeare’s relatively early retirement (although he dies 3 years later) is thematically reflected in “The Tempest”. “The Tempest” is one of Shakespeare’s last plays to have been written by him alone. Greenblatt is referring to Prospero (The Tempest’s main character) and his renunciation of magic as Shakespeare’s goodbye to the theater.

The London theater group that Shakespeare joins is made up of college educated players that come from mostly poor, but from some well-to-do families. 

All but one of the group die in their third decade of life.  The proximate causes of their early death are hard drinking, boisterous living, London’s recurring plagues, and general profligacy. Their antics are a possible source of some characters in Shakespeare’s plays; e.g. Falstaff is thought to be drawn from a player named Robert Greene (a jealous rival of Shakespeare’s). 

Greenblatt jumps in and out of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets with several suggestions about where they may reflect something or someone in William Shakespeare’s life.  Greenblatt suggests that the death of Shakespeare’s son and later his father became a part of theme and character in “Hamlet”.  The plausibility of that conjecture is in the consuming love of Hamlet for his murdered father.

“Will in the World” is beautifully narrated by Peter Jay Fernandez; his Shakespearean’ quotes remind one of great theatre’ experiences.

Greenblatt’s interweaving of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets with 16th and 17th century England, his interpretation of Shakespeare’s greatest plays and sonnets, and his interesting speculation about Shakespeare’s life are all good reasons to give this book a listen.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough
Website: chetyarbrough.blog

Stein on Writing
By Sol Stein
Narrated by Christopher Lane

Sol Stein (Author, Publisher, and Editor-in-Chief for Stein and Day Publishers)

Sol Stein’s book offers a road map to readers and writers. In reviewing books, one begins to understand what makes one better than another. One also realizes how much easier it is to be critical than objective about those who write..

Readers/Listeners/Writers will find the crossroads of commercial and literary success in “Stein on Writing”. Not all literary classics are commercially successful and not all commercially successful books are literary classics.

Stein’s book is a writer’s road map. Stein’s map reveals where a story begins, which roads to follow, and where a story ends. He explains how to write action-ably.

Writers that follow Stein’s map see the highways and streets of writing a good story. An interpretation of what Stein explains would be: Do not write “he was upset”, write, “He hurled an ash tray through a living room window, sprinkling wet shards of glass across a brown patch of grass”.

The first line, “he was upset” is vague. It tells the reader what to think. The second line, “He hurled an ashtray…”, lets a reader come to their own conclusion. It makes the reader decide about a character’s mood. It offers a scene that stimulates a reader’s imagination.

The action of the line above uses what Stein calls “particularity” to focus a reader’s attention. The scene offers clues about a character’s life (an ashtray and a brown patch of grass). The value of using “particularity” sparks interest in knowing more about the ash tray thrower.

Sol notes that a good writer is emoting readers. A good writer wants the reader to feel a character’s emotion. To Stein, a good writer does not tell the reader what to think. Stein wants the writer to make the reader feel what the character feels. On Stein’s map, this is the beginning of good story telling.

Think about Charles Dickens and “David Copperfield” and how a reader becomes invested in David’s life; i.e. how David’s sad and happy feelings invest in the reader’s emotions.

Stein acknowledges some writing details may be lost in commercially successful books but no highways and few streets are lost by a great writer. Interestingly, Stein suggests the techniques of commercially successful and literary writers are the same.

  1. A cohesive theme ties a story together.
  2. The use of particularity provides a trail of clues to a story’s theme.
  3. The use of suspense draws a reader deeper into a story.

Stein notes differences between commercial and literary writing appear in accurate use of language, in universal emotive qualities of story, and in insight to human nature. However, Stein argues that a commercially successful book can miss many of these characteristics; while a classic misses few.

Stein explains the craft of writing is a store owner’s job; always there because he/she owns the business.

  • Write every day.
  • Rewrite every day.
  • Use the dictionary.
  • Use the thesaurus.
  • Look for the perfect word that precisely defines the meaning of the idea.
  • Strive for perfection by finding the right hook to begin a report, a book, or story; keep striving with each paragraph.

Stein offers more and says it better.  This is a book for the reference shelf; to be read; to be listened to; again and again.


Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough

Website: chetyarbrough.blog

The Modern Scholar: Dante and His Divine Comedy

The Modern Scholar-Dante and His Divine Comedy

Lectures By Timothy B. Shutt

 Narrated by Timothy B. Shutt 


Timothy Shutt’s lectures on “The Divine Comedy” are a valuable guide to understanding Dante’s masterpiece.

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) Alighieri is a wealthy aristocrat that represents a major leadership faction in 13th century Italy, the “White Gulphs”, which are vying for power with the Ghibelline.

The origin of the story seems simple but its meaning is complex and revelatory.  Dante Alighieri is a wealthy aristocrat that represents a major leadership faction in 13th century Italy, the “White Gulphs”, which are vying for power with the Ghibelline.  Their conflict is over the integrity of the Pope in Rome when the papal enclave is to be relocated to Avignon, France.  The move occurs in 1309 and lasts for 67 years.

POPE BONIFACE VIII (1294-1303) Pope Boniface VIII sides with the Ghibelline to over throw the Gulphs and excommunicate Dante.  Dante loses his political position, his wealth, and coincidentally, the life of the woman he loves, Beatrice.

Pope Boniface VIII sides with the Ghibelline to over throw the Gulphs and excommunicate Dante.  Dante loses his political position, his wealth, and coincidentally, the life of the woman he loves, Beatrice.  This crushing change in Dante’s life compels him to complete (between 1308 and 1321) what Shutt calls the greatest single piece of literature ever written.

Over a century before Martin Luther posts the “95 Theses” objecting to the church’s sale of indulgences; i.e. the sale of “the word” is a preeminent issue between the Gulphs and the Ghibelline.  Pope Boniface betrays the Gulph Christian community by siding with the Ghibelline who endorse sale of indulgences.

Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Martin Luther (1483-1546) Over a century before Martin Luther posts the “95 Theses” objecting to the church’s sale of indulgences, the sale of “the word” is a preeminent issue between the Gulphs and the Ghibelline.

The Pope, in Dante’s view, is a traitor to his community.  In the pit of Dante’s despair, he creates an image of purgatory.  He writes of a hell and heaven that crystallizes human belief in the divine.  Virgil becomes Dante’s guide on an imagined journey from earth, to purgatory, to hell, and back.

Dante meets the souls of the dead and explains where they are, what sin they committed, what fate awaits them, and why some sins are greater than others.  Dante reveals how all sins in life may only be forgiven with the grace of God.  The keys to heaven lay in asking God’s forgiveness before death.

Dante defines sin, and redemption.  Human death places souls in one of three places; i.e. purgatory, hell, or heaven.  All sins are not created equal but all humankind begins life in sin and can only be redeemed through good works, baptism, forgiveness, and the grace of God.

Good works alone do not protect one from hell, or purgatory.  It seems all transgressions can be forgiven but only with a request for grace from God before death.  Sins have a weighted hierarchy; i.e. lust as the lesser; while being a traitor to one’s community is the greatest sin of all.

Sins have a weighted hierarchy; i.e. lust as the lesser; while being a traitor to one’s community is the greatest sin of all. Hell is perdition for eternity with no surcease of pain or opportunity for escape.  Heaven is a place of eternal rest, peace, and love.

Dante's 3 Headed Devil
The devil does not speak but has three faces with three stuffed mouths that eternally chew on the bodies of three traitors; i.e. Brutus, Cassius, and Judas—the greatest of earth’s sinners in Dante’s poem.

Dante’s hell is sometimes hot and sometimes cold—just below the ninth and lowest circle of hell, Dante sees Lucifer who dwells in an ice-cold wasteland.  The devil does not speak but has three faces with three stuffed mouths that eternally chew on the bodies of three traitors; i.e. Brutus, Cassius, and Judas—the greatest of earth’s sinners in Dante’s poem.  Surprisingly, some say, Pope Boniface VIII is at the eighth circle of hell; presumably because his betrayal was the lesser of Dante’s selected and unrepentant traitors.

After passing through the final depth of hell, Virgil guides Dante back to the beginning of the journey; here, Dante meets the soul of Beatrice. Virgil leaves, and Dante accompanies Beatrice in a journey to heaven.

Dante’s heaven encompasses all that is known and unknown.  Dante journeys to the planets and stars.  He sees God and views an inversion of time and space.  He finds earth is the center of all that is God and that nothing exists that is not created by God.

Dante's heaven
Dante’s heaven encompasses all that is known and unknown.  Dante journeys to the planets and stars.  He sees God and views an inversion of time and space.  He finds earth is the center of all that is God and that nothing exists that is not created by God.

Purgatory may be a way-station to heaven for a believer that is cleansed of their sin, or it may be an eternal home for the traitor, non-believer, or pagan. 

Heaven is a circle of angels that dance and spin so fast that heaven and God are everywhere at all times and in all places.  There are degrees of heaven but all who are worthy will have eternal life.  Degrees of heaven have no consequence to those who dwell in higher or lower levels because they are happy in their place–without envy; and with acceptance, and grace for the imperfection of their souls.

Purgatory may be a way-station to heaven for a believer that is cleansed of their sin, or it may be an eternal home for the traitor, non-believer, or pagan.  Hell is perdition for eternity with no surcease of pain or opportunity for escape.  Heaven is a place of eternal rest, peace, and love.

One is overwhelmed by Dante’s genius whether or not he/she is a believer.  Shutt gives one a better understanding of who Dante was and why “The Divine Comedy” is a classic.